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How to help employees have difficult conversations

We all know how easy it is to do practically anything, rather than have those difficult conversations. Apart from the few of us who love confrontation, for many it’s just something we don’t feel very equipped to do.

Some of the reasons we feel so reluctant are because we lack the skills or the confidence to tackle them. Sometimes it’s because the task seems so difficult, that we don’t think we have time.

In our professional lives, avoiding a difficult conversation might mean not pulling up your best sales manager because of her offensive behaviour to a junior member of the team.

Or failing to have a word with your closest colleague because his constant sniping about the company’s restructuring plans is having a detrimental effect on general staff morale.

We tend to think of difficult conversations being mainly the preserve of managers and team members. Tricky situations that need tackling occur among peers as well. <

Simply the perception that the conversation will be difficult (before a single word is even uttered) is enough to magnify the level of dread and concern about having to have it.  However, if it’s the deadweight of difficulty that’s stopping you then surely the next step is to imagine how you will feel once the conversation is over. Imagine the clouds parting after a storm to let the sunshine through. Feels good, doesn’t it?

If we avoid these conversations it will only create further problems down the line. Wrestling with unresolved issues robs individuals of energy. Delaying tactics can have a dysfunctional effect on teams, affecting morale and productivity.

The CBI estimates that conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year – taking up 20% of leadership time and losing up to 370 million working days.

So instead of avoiding difficult conversations, the more constructive – and cost-effective – option is to ensure you and your employees have the confidence to conquer fear, and learn how to hold conversations in a positive and skilled way.

And these techniques give you the tools to become more influential and persuasive in the workplace too.

Preparation is key, so here are some useful tips when you need to have a difficult conversation at work:

  • Positive response

Acting quickly when you spot a problem will stop it from getting worse. Think about a time and place to have the conversation. Ask the person in question that you’d like to talk to them about something important at a specific time and location. Setting expectations will increase the chances of a positive outcome.

  • Ground the conversation

Before your meeting, take time to consider the basis on which your conversation will be built. This is where some people become stuck as they don’t always think they have the time. If you consider how much time you take procrastinating about the situation, then preparation to finally deal with the situation is time well spent.

  • Think about the intention

It’s important to demonstrate to the other person why dealing with this matter is as much in their interests as yours. A partnership has a much better chance of success than opposition. This is about reframing the conversation so that both parties are aligned.

Our short animation below explains this concept further.

Then use DELIA to guide the conversation

  • Describe

Describe the specific behaviour or performance that you are concerned about in as factual, non-emotive terminology as possible by using “I” statement rather than “You” ones. Be sure to have evidence or examples. Being very specific gives your comments more credibility.

  • Explain

Explain the reasons for your concern, why the behaviour or performance is unacceptable, its impact on team performance and how it makes you feel. You might also choose to explain your own contribution to the problem which can be trickier. Be ready to identify and acknowledge how your own behaviour or actions may be have contributed to the problem and be ready to act on them.

  • Listen

Gain feedback from the individual and listen to their response. This is so important as you are not delivering a monologue. Check that your understanding is accurate. Ask open ended questions and don’t make assumptions. Be ready to listen for and understand ways in which you might be contributing to the problem by your action or inaction – prepare to accept that you might be wrong.

  • Identify alternatives

Identify an acceptable alternative to the behaviour or performance you’re discussing. Give the person a picture of how they should perform or behave and give examples if appropriate. In some cases you might wish to invite the individual to come up with their own ideas

  • Agree action

Agree the next steps with the individual. This should involve a follow-up meeting to review progress, and may involve other actions for you and the other person. Don’t forget to write notes.

Having difficult conversations is a skill that is best learned through practice. Using your learned skills well will help you have richer conversations, developing your influence at work.

You can find out more about our managing difficult conversations course and our range of leadership and personal effectiveness courses here.

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